MEDIA WATCH: Arrest of clean-cut Kobe surprises media on numerous levels

Details were scarce when news broke that NBA superstar Kobe Bryant had been arrested in Vail, CO on charges of sexual assault. The media reports indicated only that an anonymous 19-year-old had accused the married, 24-year-old Los Angeles Laker of sexual assault, which in Colorado could range from unwanted touching to rape.

Details were scarce when news broke that NBA superstar Kobe Bryant had been arrested in Vail, CO on charges of sexual assault. The media reports indicated only that an anonymous 19-year-old had accused the married, 24-year-old Los Angeles Laker of sexual assault, which in Colorado could range from unwanted touching to rape.

Only about one-third of the coverage analyzed by Media Watch went into detail about the fact that the arresting sheriff had sidestepped the normal chain of command and was authorized to arrest Bryant by a judge before the DA had decided which - if any - charges to bring. Given the unusual circumstances, there was some concern about how organized the Colorado authorities were. The San Jose Mercury News (July 9) cited a report in The Vail Daily that "a rookie sheriff went cowboying off," possibly wanting to make a name for himself. Despite not being charged with any crime, the media splashed news of the arrest all over the front pages. Developments were also kept in heavy rotation on the network news channels and talk shows. More than three out of four reports expressed shock that Bryant would be involved in such a situation. Lakers' GM Mitch Kupchak was widely quoted for saying, "These allegations are completely out of character of the Kobe Bryant we know." Others were also incredulous and offered whole-hearted support for Bryant. Still, there was widespread concern that Bryant's reputation would never recover from the arrest. Peter Land, GM of sports marketing at Edelman, told USA Today (July 8), "Since the headlines are already out there, at some level he's already seen as guilty." Several articles noted that Kobe's endorsement contracts with Nike, Sprite, McDonald's, and Upper Deck might suffer, and that the entire episode was one more black eye for the scandal-plagued NBA. Some pundits and columnists cautioned that although Bryant is a sensation at playing basketball and is extremely charismatic, the average person doesn't know his true personality. The Orlando Sentinel (July 8) wrote, "We think we know who these athletes are, but we don't. Not really. We only know their carefully crafted images, created and cultivated by sneaker reps, PR people, and marketing firms." Several reports acknowledged that, in a post-O.J. Simpson world, anything's possible. Finally, although next to nothing was known about Bryant's accuser at that point, a few reports suggested that she might be a gold-digger who had trumped up the charges in the hopes of getting a sizable settlement. These reports portrayed Bryant as a possible victim in the unfolding drama. The Los Angeles Times (July 8) pointed out that Bryant was fortunate enough to be able to draw upon a deep well of good faith in his character after years of being in the public eye: "Image isn't everything, but until this story yields more details, image remains Bryant's best defense." Given the near unanimity regarding Bryant's sterling character from so many people, the consensus appeared to be that he should be given the benefit of the doubt until more facts are known. But at the same time, the allegations alone will take their toll on his wholesome reputation.
  • Evaluation and analysis by CARMA International. Media Watch can be found at www.carma.com.

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